Searchlight, Nevada, is sometimes called a “living ghost town” for good reason. According to the 2010 census, the town is home to only 500 residents. The small town is usually only known as a place to fill up en route to Laughlin, but there is more to the town than you see from the highway. The town has a small museum just off the main road that is worth a stop if you find yourself passing through.
The museum features an assortment of artifacts from some of the town’s famous former residents. Senator Harry Reid grew up there and has written extensively about his childhood in Searchlight. Lt. William Nellis, the fighter pilot that flew over 70 missions in WWII and who Nellis Air Force Base is named after, lived in Searchlight until he was 13 when his family moved to Las Vegas. Clara Bow, the silent film star, lived on nearby Walking Box Ranch with her husband Rex Bell.
Founded in 1898, Searchlight has had its ups and downs. During its heyday, it was larger than Las Vegas and was even considered for the county seat when the area was rezoned to Clark County in 1909. Las Vegas—an odd choice considering that Las Vegas was not even considered a city until 1911—won the seat. Las Vegas, however, was a railroad town, which made it easily accessible to the rest of the country.
The town declined after the 1920s, due to the construction of highway US Route 91. The new highway bypassed the entire valley; we now know the highway as the I-15. The construction of Hoover Dam gave a temporary boost to the population, but it quickly returned to obscurity after the project was completed.
How the town got its name is a hotly debated matter. Some say that it was because searchlights were used to guide miners to the town’s brothels. Harry Reid claims that it originated when the first prospectors explored the area and determined that it “would take a searchlight to find gold here.”
Admission to the museum is free. The address is: 200 Michael Wendell Way, Searchlight, NV 89046.
Note: the museum shares a building with the town library and a community center.
Museum hours can be found on its Clark County webpage.
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